he was certainly the man who gave the first impulse to the ball of revolution. were I to give his character in general terms, it would be of mixed aspect. I think he was the best humored man in society I almost ever knew, and the greatest orator that ever lived. he had a consummate knolege of the human heart, which directing the efforts of his eloquence enabled him to attain a degree of popularity with the people at large never perhaps equalled. his judgment in other matters was inaccurate in matters of law it was not worth a copper: he was avaritious & rotten hearted. his two great passions were the love of money & of fame: but when these came into competition the former predominated.
To William Wirt, August 4, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
How do leaders assess other leaders?
Wirt asked Jefferson’s detailed assistance for a book about Patrick Henry. Jefferson declined, citing the time it would require. Instead, he made these general observations. Henry was:
1. In public, almost “the best humored man” he had ever known.
2. The greatest public speaker with an unequalled ability to influence people
3. Lacking in judgment in matters other than oratory
4. Incompetent as a lawyer
5. Greedy and dishonest, motivated by money and fame
Jefferson did not comment on their political differences, which were many, but on Henry’s character as a person. Nor did he mention Henry’s accusation of his (Governor Jefferson’s) cowardice in fleeing Monticello as British soldiers ascended the mountain to capture him in 1781, charges that grieved him for years.
Wirt’s 1817 book on Patrick Henry is the source of Henry’s famous address to the House of Burgesses in 1775, claiming “… give me liberty or give me death!” None of Henry’s speeches were written down at the time of delivery. This version, given more than 40 years later, is considered fanciful, as is Henry’s most famous quote.